Utah woman sues employer she claims ‘recklessly’ exposed her to coronavirus

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Employee entrance to the Built Bar, in American Fork, Thursday, May 14, 2020.

On April 8, Juana Victoria Flores emailed a human resources official at Built Bar, an American Fork based company that manufactures and distributes nutritional supplements.

She was concerned about the number of people who had fallen ill on the production lines where she worked amid rumors that some employees there had contracted the coronavirus. And she wanted a professional company brought in to clean up or fumigate the building.

“I am really concerned,” Flores wrote.

The next day, she developed a cough — possibly the first symptom of her eventual diagnosis of COVID-19 less than a week later. She never got an email back, and she says the company never took any of the precautions she asked for.

That’s according to a lawsuit Flores filed Wednesday in Utah’s 4th District Court that claims Built Bar “knowingly, intentionally and recklessly” exposed its employees to the coronavirus.

The company allegedly refused to provide employees with personal protective equipment or to sanitize its facilities and threatened to terminate anyone who raised safety concerns about COVID-19 — all motivated by “their sole desire to increase their profitability and net worth,” the lawsuit states.

Flores’ daughter and roommate, both listed as plaintiffs on the lawsuit, have also tested positive for the coronavirus. Flores’ daughter has Down syndrome with respiratory cardiac deficiencies and was hospitalized as a result. Her condition “remains critical,” according to the complaint.

Juan Carlos Gutierrez, the plaintiffs’ attorney, declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday, citing its ongoing nature, but said those who brought forward the complaint may be interested in speaking publicly at a later time.

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday, Built Bar dismissed the merits of the complaint and said the safety and health of its employees was the company’s top priority.

“We have an impeccable product safety record and have dedicated significant company resources to protecting our customers and employees, including by following all published guidelines and even implementing safety practices that go beyond what is required,” the statement said.

The company says it voluntarily closed to sanitize its entire facility while cases were increasing and put additional safety measures in place to confront the spread of the coronavirus “while simultaneously providing safe jobs and incomes to our employees during this difficult time.” Production employees were paid during the closure, the statement said.

“We continue to welcome any and all suggestions to improve workplace safety,” Built Bar concluded. “The allegations of this lawsuit, however, are false. And we are eager to demonstrate our commitment to workplace health and safety in court.”

Earlier this month, Utah County leaders called for compliance with coronavirus recommendations after they said two companies in the area had ignored guidelines and required employees with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis to still report to work. Together, those companies were responsible for 68 cases. At one of the businesses, 48% of employees tested positive for the virus.

It’s unclear whether Built Bar is one of the two mentioned in that letter. The county, citing privacy concerns, has repeatedly declined to reveal the identity of those businesses and has denied public records requests for more information about them. Health department officials would say only that neither of the companies have direct interaction with the general public.

The Salt Lake Tribune is currently working through the appeals process in an effort to obtain public records related to the unnamed businesses.

Flores’ lawsuit is among the first tests of Utah’s new immunity law, which passed in a special session of the Legislature and took effect earlier this month. SB3007 shields businesses from lawsuits brought forward by employees or customers who say they were exposed to the coronavirus on their property.

While proponents have posited those protections as a way to kickstart the economy by reducing fears for businesses of frivolous litigation, critics have worried they would dissuade businesses from taking proper precautions.

The law does not apply in cases of willful misconduct, reckless infliction of harm or intentional infliction of harm. Flores’ lawsuit attempts to put her case explicitly outside of the state’s immunity protections, alleging it falls in the “willful misconduct” category.

Flores wants a judge to order Built Bar to compensate for a host of grievances, including legal fees, past and future medical expenses, depression, diminished earning capacity and lost wages.